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King Simeon's Saragyol Palace in Rila Mountain, a wooden royal residence used as a hunting lodge.

Borovets is the biggest mountain resort in Bulgaria. Located at the foot of Musala peak in Rila, less than an hour away from the capital, the resort is a magnet both for the fans of extreme winter sports and those who seek the coolness of the mountain in the summer.  In addition to the excellent ski-slopes, the resort offers horse-back riding, mountain biking, golf, hiking trails, and some interesting opportunities for sightseeing. To me, the “palaces” of Borovets are a telltale of the Bulgarian entrepreneurial thinking and practices.

The King’s Hunting Lodge

Borovets is the oldest mountain resort in Bulgaria. It used to be the haven of relaxation for the noble and the rich. In 1914, the Bulgarian king Ferdinand I built his summer hunting lodge here.  In 1946, the monarchy became a republic after a referendum conducted under Soviet pressure. The royal family was banished and the lodge was nationalized.

In 2001, the former king Simeon Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, who was only nine years old at the time of the flight, returned to Bulgaria, won the parliamentary elections to become the prime-minister, and regained his rights over the property his family owned before 1946. This restitution was very controversial because it wasn’t completely clear what belonged to Ferdinand’s heirs, what belonged to the state, and what belonged to the institution that mediated between the two. The public debate continued when it became clear that absurdly, the Bulgarian government had by mistake (!) returned to Simeon more property than what he had originally claimed. The value of this property is somewhere about 160 million euro and includes 2100 hectares of forests around Borovets and parts of Rila’s highest peak.

The 5-Star Palaces

This five-star hotel in Borovets was notorious fame

Today, there are several “palaces” in Borovets. The resort, as too many other Bulgarian resorts, has been overbuilt with huge hotels that might be completely full during the winter season, but remain empty during most of the year. Such hotels are the projects of megalomaniacs with a distorted vision for the development of the resort.

The problem is that Borovets is full of 5 and 4-star hotels, yet its infrastructure is horrible: roads are bad, the sidewalks and sweeps of grass are untidy, weeds grow in the fountains, there is not enough street lights or maps with directions. Some of the closed-down restaurants (seasonally or permanently) look scary and run-down, and one simply doesn’t feel secure walking by them. Apparently our businessmen invest in luxurious hotels forgetting that tourists will have to leave their premises at some point and will encounter surroundings that do not live up to their expectations.

The financial crisis is probably partially responsible for the many abandoned hotel construction sites and empty apartment buildings that lack tenants and buyers. On the other hand, such unfinished projects invariably suggest shady affairs. One such popular case is a palace-like hotel built by one notorious mafia boss who was later shot dead abroad. While the police was investigating the origin of the mobster’s fortune, his wife sold the hotel and thus legalized the profit from the sale.

This problems and controversies around the resort are a pity because the nature surrounding Borovets is truly awe-inspiring.

Only one of the many lifts in Borovets

Borovets, Rila Mountain

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Did you see my photos from the Seven Rila Lakes?

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On Sunday, I went to a fabulous Bulgarian-English wedding at the St. Nedelya church in Sofia. I want to tell you more about the mother of the bride because she is an exceptional woman!

She is married to an Englishman, and they have lived in London forever, yet their two children (the bride and her brother) were baptized as Orthodox Christians instead of Anglicans like the father.

This Bulgarian woman has taught her children such love and respect for their roots that the bride decided to marry in Sofia, in an Orthodox church, despite the fact that her groom and his family (and her own family on the English side) are Anglican! Thus, the groom, his parents, and all of their British guests, including some guests from Brunei, had come to our St. Nedelya church for the ceremony! To make everything perfect, they baptized their little baby boy as an Orthodox Christian too!

The wedding ceremony in the beautifully painted church was lead by two priests: one to perform the ritual, and one to sing accompanied by the choir. Then, all the guests, mostly British and a few Bulgarians, went out of the church and reentered a few minutes later for the second ceremony, the baby’s baptism. The baby started to laugh as its feet touched the water basin!

Next, we all headed for the Sheraton, Sofia’s oldest and most renowned hotel. The menu was only typical Bulgarian cuisine presented in a gourmet way. The entertainment was splendid too: four dancers in national garments and a folklore singer and bagpiper kept both the foreign and local guests in good spirits all night long. The Brits picked up our rhythms surprisingly fast!

Wearing the crowns during the wedding ceremony in St. Nedelya church in Sofia

This was a wonderful transnational interreligious wedding, and it was all made possible thanks to the vigor of that incredible Bulgarian mother of the bride who not only preserved her national sprit in the foreign land, but also continued it through her children and grandchildren.

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Read more about traditional Bulgarian wedding rituals 

or about a rather upsetting baptism ceremony in an Orthodox monastery.

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Gourmet Bulgarian appetizers: lukanka, shopska salad, snezhanka salad, kashkaval, kyopulu, grape leaf sarmi

Traditional breaking of the bread: whoever breaks the bigger part off the bread will be the leader in the home. These are two couples: the newlyweds and the bride's recently married brother and sister-in-law.

I uploaded these videos from the party at the Sheraton Hotel. I think it’s obvious who are the Brits and who the Bulgarians! Enjoy!


Last weekend, we took a day-trip to the Trigrad gorge, but in addition to nature’s beauty, we encountered man’s small-mindedness.

Trigrad gorge in the Rhodope mountain, Bulgaria

The majestic gorge is situated on the southern side of the  Rhodope mountain, near the town of Trigrad, about 3.5 hours away from Sofia. For 7km, Trigradska River meanders through the canyon-like gorge. The sheer rocks on both sides of it reach a height of 300-350m. The distance between these rock walls is at first 300m, but then reduces to mere 50-60m. It feels like you are standing beween the Symplegades, the Clashing Rocks from the myth about Jason and the Argonauts.

From the Trigrad gorge, the river vanishes into Dyavolsko Gurlo, or the Devil’s Throat cave. This cave is like an abyss, in which the river enters and falls from a 42-meter height.  This is the highest underground waterfall in Bulgaria, and it forms an enormous underground hall called Buchashta zala, or the Rumbling Hall: 110m long, 40m wide, and 35m high. You can easily fit the capital’s Alexander Nevski cathedral in there. Legend says that the Thracian hero Orpheus entered the Underworld to retrieve his beloved Eurydice from the dead precisely through the Dyavolsko Gurlo cave.

Here, the cliffs on the two sides of the Trigrad gorge are 300m high and less than 100m apart.

The place is frequented by Bulgarian and foreign tourists and, of course, is full of merchants. In this remote part of Bulgaria, the merchants are mostly old people from the nearby mountain villages who are selling hand-picked herbs and home-made jams and honey from forest fruits and trees. Every baba (grandmother, old lady) has piled her table with jars and is smiling at you and beckoning you to buy hers. There is a baba or a dyado (grandfather, old man) every 10m from the exit of the cave to the parking lot.

We buy a jar from the first baba and some herbs from the next one a few steps over. But then we don’t need anything else (plus, the goodies on every table are about the same), so we politely refuse to the next old man saying that we’ve already got enough.  And then he begins to supplicate and even begs us to buy from him too: “It’s not fair,” he says, “tourists always buy from those two because they are closer to the cave’s exit, and there are no clients left for me.” Eventually, we take pity on this dyado, and buy some more herbs from him.

A little bit further down the road, there are more ladies. This time a little bit more cheerfully, one invites us to buy from her jams. “No thank you, we already bought some from someone else.”  “Oh, you bought from those women? They add sugar to their jam! Mine is better!”

It saddens me to see that these people, who share a similar fate and have decided to earn a living in a similar way, don’t hesitate to do the dirty on each other. This seems to be typical behavior for many Bulgarians. We always look at each other’s riches and success and either try to screw each other up or defame and depreciate each other.  We have a word that signifies that our chests and hearts have shrunk under the pressures of a rough life. Unfortunately this state of being has become a national feature and has turned many of us into narrow-minded, petty people.

Looking up the Dyavolsko Gurlo cave

Looking down the Dyavolsko Gurlo



It is not easy to celebrate America’s Independence Day in Bulgaria, but I tried to be mentally as close as possible to my overseas friends. This is a list of the “American” things I did:

1. Spent the weekend evenings at the open-air jazz festival, A to JazZ, which presented the history of jazz: from its birth in Mississippi in the beginning of the 19th century, past the influence of swing and bebop, and until the music of the iconic Frank Sinatra and his interpretation of the American Dream. The event was organized by America For Bulgaria Foundation and took place in Doktorska Gradinka (Doctors’ Garden).

2. Went shopping in an American-style mall, where I tried on a pair of Levi’s and checked out which Hollywood movies were playing in the cinema.

3. Walked past McDonalds, Starbucks and Subway… but did not enter in any of them. Instead, bought some imported US beef jerky for my brother from the supermarket.

4. Tweeted and Facebooked my Fourth of July greetings through my smartphone.

Yep, no all-American cookouts in the back yard, bonfires at the beach, or fireworks over the Charles River this year. The fourth of July was just a normal summer Monday here in Sofia, without any sign of stars or stripes.  It’s such a pest that I’m always in the “other” country during big holidays!

Happy Fourth of July!

Read about my 4th July 2010 in Boston

 


I thought this video might encourage more of you to visit Sofia!

3D projection mapping on buildings is a well-known means of advertising and entertainment in Western Europe, and it finally arrived in Bulgaria thanks to LG.

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